John Wesley Addresses the Clergy: Highlights pt. 1

My brother and I were talking about and reading parts of John Wesley's "Address to the Clergy" the other day, so I thought I might go back and re-read the whole thing. When I first started seminary at SMU, I decided to read this Address to help set some direction for what I was doing in such a place. Now that I've finished and been sent by the bishop to be a pastor, it is well worth the re-read.

The address was originally given to all of John's fellow Anglican clergy in the Church of England, though as he says, he is just as happy to address "any, of whatsoever denomination, whom God has called to watch over the souls of others, as they that must give account." (Works of Wesley [or, WW], 3rd edition, published by Baker, vol. x, p.481).

One important thing for a clergyman (whether "he" [as it is styled in classic English] be male or female in our context) to posses is a quick mind, "Or, how will he be able, when need requires, to answer a fool according to his folly? How frequent is the need!"(WW, x, 482). This I thought was funny at first, but I wonder how well we do this today (if we attempt it at all)?

He must have a thorough and complete knowledge of the Scripture: "of all the Scriptures; seeing scripture interprets scripture; one part fixing the sense of another. So that whether it be true or not, that every good textuary is a good Divine (i.e. everyone who has knowledge of scripture is a good theologian), it is certain that none can be a good Divine who is not a good textuary." (WW, x, 482). And how far short are we Christians and "mainliners" in particular here? Not only the fundamentalists, but also the rabbis and Islamic Imams put us to shame in their sheer knowledge of the sacred texts next to our relative ignorance.

"But can he do this, in the most effectual manner, without a knowledge of the original tounges?" (WW, x, 483). The implied answer: No. Ironically and sadly, unlike Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Baptists - the Methodist ministers are not required to take any biblical language classes to get an MDiv (though many of us did).

He goes on to say that a minister must have some knowledge of logic, philosophy, and geometry, in order to learn to think and speak in a coherent and connected fashion. As people who believe in Scripture, Tradition, REASON, and experience, it is truly a deficiency that no basic course in logical reasoning was required to graduate our seminaries (though, those who had taken such courses had an edge in the curriculum). But the curriculum is already quite full.

He goes on: "Can any [who have a university education for ministry] be excused if they do not add to all that...the knowledge of the Fathers? the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given. It will be easily percieved that I speak cheifly of those who wrote before the Council of Nicea. But who would not likewise desire to have some aquaintance with those that followed them: with St. Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, Augustine, and, above all...Ephraim Syrus?" (WW, x, 484). Here is a theme that I have been emphasizing pretty consistently over the last couple years (see especially here), and here we see Wesley's own catholicity and continuity with major Anglican Divines: the Early Church Fathers are the most helpful and recognizably authoritative interpreters of Scripture for the Church of Christ. I am excited to have recently unpacked my 38 volume set of the Fathers' works.

There are lots of resources available to get to know the Fathers, and happily, more are becoming available all the time. In addition to the big sets of collected works, there are daily and weekly devotion readers available now for getting to know them in more manageable doses, and Tom Oden's extremely ambitious Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture for a more direct commenatry. So this is a huge part of Wesley's call to all ministers: like St. Augustine before you, 'take and read' - read the Bible and read the Fathers, that you may know the will of God, and lead others to it. This is a good stopping place for now.

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Blogger Stephen said...

And how far short are we Christians and "mainliners" in particular here? Not only the fundamentalists, but also the rabbis and Islamic Imams put us to shame in their sheer knowledge of the sacred texts next to our relative ignorance.

Wow, that is quite an assumption. The pastor down the street from me got his "Ministry" degree from a Bible College where he went for TWO semesters. So is the implication that he knows more about the Bible than I? Is that because he quotes a minimum of 15 different scriptures to proof text his sermon each week?

Whereas I carefully exegete my ONE scripture using dictionaries, commentaries, notes, original languages, etc because that is the way I was taught to do it at SMU. Please clarify but it seems to me you are implying that mainliners (which include Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopals) don't know their Bible very well.

11:06 AM, July 25, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey Stephen,
Thanks for the critical reading. Let me clarify: My statement is a presumption based upon my own observations. I have a number of friends in a Baptist Seminary in New Orleans, one at the Baptist Seminary in Kentucky, and a handful at DTS, and IN GENERAL they demonstrate far more knowledge of the CONTENT of the Bible (both particular details as in chapter and verse and over-arching content as in "what is in 1 Samuel) than the majority of students I knew at Perkins. In both cases this seems to be based less on the seminary itself (I would imagine everyone reads basically the whole Bible in seminary) than on the amount of Bible learning that took place before. Of course, this is based upon my own experience which I admit is limited and even if correct, I am always prepared to admit there will be a number of exceptions.
Do you doubt that it is true?
As I say, I was here talking about content, not meaning or theory (which I have not addressed at all).

11:08 AM, July 26, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

An (admittedly) anecdotal example: In undergrad, a few of my friends (all Baptists and non-denoms) decided to memorize the book of James together. Know any mainliners who ever did that? I don't.

11:09 AM, July 26, 2007  
Blogger Stephen said...

I guess your friends in undergrad weren't Lutherans. :)

On the serious side, I would concede that Non-Denom/Baptist/Assembly of God Seminaries probably teach more "Bible" in terms of here are 56 passages on prayer for you to memorize for the test next week. I guess what I was questioning is does "sheer knowledge of sacred texts" come from memorizing whole books or from countless hours of study of passages?

Another point to mention is that the Methodist Disciple Bible Studies are arguably better than any other curriculum when it comes to learning the Bible in the church.

2:22 PM, July 26, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I think you are certainly right about Disciple, Stephen. It is one of the ways that the Scriptural illiteracy problem, bemoaned by many more people than just me, is being challenged in the Church and, I think it is positively a gift of God.
Whether "sheer bulk knowledge" is the right sort of knowledge is a good point to raise. I think I see where you are coming from here (many have heard a preacher who knows lots of proof texts nevertheless to violence to the Bible message). Yet I still have this sense (and am keenly aware of how weak and ambiguous an argument "I have a sense" amounts to) that knowing - memorizing - the Word has a spiritual lifegiving effect that may not be attained in other ways. I think the Jewish Rabbis who memorize the Torah, the Imams who learn to recite the Qu'ran, and the medieval monastics who could sing the Psalter by heart were getting in touch with a sort of word-centered spirituality that we have not tapped into as deeply as we might.

4:31 PM, July 26, 2007  
Blogger Stephen said...

It might be a both-and? I grew up Baptist so I know a lot of Bible verses and recite them from memory. (Drills at a very early age were very common in the Baptist church growing up - not so much now, but thats a different story/rant) But I also realize now, I had no clue what these passages meant till I went to seminary. Studying the Greek wording, John 3:16 took on a new meaning to me that I didn't notice before.

2:30 PM, July 30, 2007  

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